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Freedom Confronts the Middle East

Is Natan Sharansky on the right track?

By 1.19.05

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The Case for Democracy:
The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror

Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer
(Public Affairs, 303 pages, $26.95)

THESE DAYS, ONE SEEKS IN vain for voices who contend that the Cold War was a lost cause. The reason, quite obviously, is that the West's triumph over the forces of communist totalitarianism makes this a decidedly difficult notion to sustain.

So why such heated resistance to idea, which finds its most prominent expression in the Bush administration's calls for democracy in the Middle East, that Arab and Muslim tyrannies should share a similar fate? After all, next to the fearsome intercontinental influence once wielded by the Evil Empire, the modest mandates of Middle Eastern potentates qualify them as little more than oil-pumping pygmies.

In his new book, The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky gives us the answer. At bottom, he writes, it has to do with moral clarity: there simply isn't enough of it.

For instance, it is this lack of moral clarity that informs leftist critics' resentment of the Bush administration's admirably hard-line approach to Middle Eastern tyranny. Incapable of drawing distinctions between a democratic West and an autocratic Middle East, leftist activists reach for spurious analogies: President Bush becomes Hitler incarnate; America and Israel become the latter day versions of Nazi Germany; Islamist terrorists out to trip-up a democracy-bound Iraq become freedom fighters on par with the heroes of the American Revolution. And those are the flattering comparisons.

Nor is the dearth of moral clarity limited to the America-bashing Left. Sharansky notes that some within the mainstream of American political discourse suffer from a similar affliction. Even as they hold dear the values of American democracy, Sharansky argues, these "freedom's skeptics" -- among them the "realist" tacticians who counsel "engagement" with the worst the Middle East has to offer -- deny the power of freedom to transform undemocratic societies. Reluctant to insist on the superiority of democratic virtues, these critics carp that America has "no right to impose its values." Unwilling to place their faith in the transformative power of democratic freedoms, they instead urge America to make common cause with regimes that survive by denying those freedoms to their native populations. Thus do these skeptics make the case for dictatorship.

AS A FORMER DISSIDENT in the Soviet Union, Sharansky knows something about dictators. In mounting his central argument that the West should actively promote democracy in places that lack it, Sharansky, enlists his own struggles in the front lines of the Jewish dissident movement -- a career that earned him imprisonment in KGB-run prisons. With impressive thoroughness, limpid clarity, and the singular conviction who a man who has seen freedom slay one of history's most formidable tyrannies, Sharansky persuasively contends that the dictatorships that seem so formidable to Western eyes are, like the former Soviet Union, inherently unstable. His case for democracy comes down to this: All that's needed for tyranny to crumble is for freedom to be introduced.

How well this line of theorizing goes down in today's all-splenetic-all-the-time political climate is evidenced by the hostile reactions provoked by The Case for Democracy. For sensibly insisting that free societies must be the precondition to any lasting peace with the Middle East, Sharansky has come in for pointed rebuke from both the left and the right, which execrate him, respectively, as either a right-wing ideologue not above suspicion of neo-conservatism, or otherwise, a hopeless dreamer divorced from the real-life difficulties of fostering democracy in autocracy-plagued Middle East.

The Case for Democracy testifies that he is neither. Rather than merely willing democracy to take root in the Middle East, as he is frequently caricatured to do, Sharansky lays out policies to encourage the opening of Middle Eastern "fear societies." Recalling his own fight for freedom, Sharansky explains how farsighted Cold War-era policies like the Jackson Amendment and the Helsinki Agreements, which introduced human rights measures behind the Iron Curtain, fatally undermined the power of the Communist diehards. Noting that many of the Middle East's most anti-American countries are wholly dependent on Western, and specifically American aid, Sharansky urges policymakers to adopt similar policies, linking financial succor to the Middle East to the protection of human rights and the loosening of authoritarian controls.

ALREADY, HIS CRITICS HAVE thumbed their noses at Sharansky's proposals, sneering that they smack of foreign policy as "social work." As Sharansky convincingly demonstrates, however, the struggle against Arab and Islamic tyranny is not merely a humanitarian endeavor. Indeed, arguably the most important aspect of this book is Sharansky's treatment of the oft-dismissed connection between tyranny and terrorism. Considered at length, this connection is as obvious as it is dangerous: Because all dictatorial regimes survive by crushing internal dissent, they must consistently evoke the threat of external enemies, which supposedly necessitate oppressive measures.

The result, as September 11 tragically showed, is that the West, particularly America and Israel, become the bull's-eyes of choice. Fears of external enemies silence the democratic opposition while empowering the most violently radical elements Arab and Muslim society. Small wonder, as Sharansky points out, that studies show countries with the least amount of civic freedom are also the most anti-American and anti-Semitic. Put bluntly: by consenting to let Middle Eastern dictators literally get away with murder, the democratic West makes itself the next victim.

Paradoxically, the book is on weakest intellectual ground when it retreats from its own forceful thesis. At several junctures, for instance, Sharansky comes down against holding elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, arguing that societies with no tradition of freedom will produce leaders who will violate it at home and abroad. Yet Sharansky does not allow for another, equally plausible, possibility: That democratic elections may serve, as they did in Indonesia, to co-opt or marginalize the more fanatical elements of society, forcing extremists to moderate their views or risk political excommunication.

As we forge ahead in the War on Terror, the lessons of The Case for Democracy serve as a powerful guide, confirming that the promotion of free societies and representative government is not only "universally desired, it is universally desirable." Perhaps more importantly, at a time when the wisdom of exporting democracy is under assault, Sharansky reminds us that those who cheer the demise of tyranny have history on their side.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.